Johnny Unitas, the legendary Baltimore Colt quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record and was known for his remarkable field presence as he ushered in the league's modern era, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 69.
Unitas suffered a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in Timonium, Md., and, despite efforts by the center's medical staff to revive him, he died at the scene. His body was taken to nearby St. Joseph Medical Center.
"It was a swift event," said Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
Unitas had undergone emergency triple-bypass surgery in 1993 after a heart attack.
Known as the "Meal Ticket" by one teammate and "Johnny U" by the rest of the football world, Unitas in his familiar No. 19 won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career. The two-time NFL most valuable player was the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards and retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing and most seasons leading the league in touchdown passes.
He threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a record that has not come close to being touched. That mark is more impressive considering he set it when teams played 12 games a season, not the current 16, so it represents a four-year span.
"He was the greatest quarterback who ever lived," said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. "He couldn't run like Fran Tarkenton, he couldn't throw a screen pass like Y.A. Tittle, he couldn't throw a picture-perfect pass like Sonny Jurgensen, but he could do everything and make it work."
Huff played across the line of scrimmage from Unitas in the 1958 championship, when the star quarterback led the Colts to a come-from-behind victory over the Giants in a match football historians have long called "the Greatest Game Ever Played."
With 90 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Colts trailing by three, Unitas completed four passes to move 85 yards and set up the tying field goal.
"At the time, I was thinking, 'OK, we tied. At least we'll get half the money,' " Huff recalled. "Nobody ever talked about sudden death; I didn't even know what that meant."
The league's commissioner was Bert Bell, who believed no championship game should end in a tie, and an on-the-spot decision was made to play until the next team scored.
The Giants got the ball first but were forced to punt. Unitas responded by driving his team 80 yards in 12 plays, and running back Alan Ameche scored to give the Colts a 23-17 victory in the nationally televised game at Yankee Stadium. Suddenly, millions of TV viewers were hooked on football.
"The drama came from the championship setting rather than the game itself, until we came down to tie it in the final seconds," Unitas recalled. "And then it became the first playoff ever to go to sudden death, and you can't have much more drama than that."
Don Shula, who coached Unitas for seven seasons, said it was Unitas' toughness as much as anything that allowed him to stay in the pocket, giving his receivers that much more time to get open.
"I always felt that he invented the two-minute drill," Shula said. "He seemed to have a clock in his head and always knew how much time he had to work with."
"He was the first of the great modern quarterbacks, and his performance set the standard for everyone who followed him at that position."
In 1968, Unitas suffered a severe injury to his right arm during an exhibition game and had to sit out most of the season. He threw only 32 passes that season, and his backup, Earl Morrall, became the NFL's MVP. Morrall led the Colts to Super Bowl III, where they lost to Joe Namath and the upstart New York Jets in one of the most momentous upsets in NFL history.
"I didn't even play until the fourth quarter," Unitas said in 1994, recalling that Super Bowl stunner. "Any time they bring out in these little excerpts and they bring the '68 game on, they talk about Joe Namath being against Johnny Unitas.
"I say, 'Uh-uh.' They're blaming me for all that stuff. I didn't have anything to do with it until the fourth quarter. I took the team down and scored a touchdown and we were going for another one when the game ended."
From his trademark flattop haircut to his black high-top cleats, Unitas embodied Baltimore. He was always critical of Robert Irsay's decision to move the Colts to Indianapolis. At one point he said he did not want to be included in the record books put out by the Indianapolis Colts.
"He was on the short list of players that you can count on one hand of the greatest to ever play," said Art Modell, owner of the Ravens. "His impact was enormous. He cared so much for this community that he made his home. And he fought for his fellow NFL alumni to increase their benefits and improve their lives."
Added Modell: "This is a sad day for the NFL and an even sadder day for Baltimore."
Before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, Unitas was named the league's MVP in 1964 and '67; the greatest quarterback of all time by NFL's 50th Anniversary Committee; player of the decade by the Associated Press in 1970; and five times All-Pro.
When asked what it was like to play with Unitas, tight end John Mackey once said, "It's like being in the huddle with God."
Born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, Unitas was only 4 when his father, who owned a small coal delivery business, died of pneumonia. His mother went to night school to become a bookkeeper to support her four children.
Unitas played college ball at the University of Louisville because Notre Dame turned him down.
"When I first walked on the field at Louisville, the head coach thought I was a waterboy, I was so small," Unitas said in an HBO documentary.
He caught the attention of pro scouts as a sophomore in 1952, when he completed 17 of 22 passes, three for touchdowns, to beat Florida State, 41-14. He was a ninth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 but--in what has to be one of the biggest personnel blunders of all time--was cut in training camp.
A man without a team, he worked construction and played for the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game in the semipro Greater Pittsburgh League. Later that year, the Colts received a letter from a Unitas fan urging them to take a look at him, which Coach Weeb Eubank did. Unitas was signed in 1956.
"He was bowlegged and slope-shouldered, he looked like a physical wreck, but, man, could he play," Huff said. "One time when I was playing for the Redskins, I called nine different defenses. He beat all nine of them. I didn't want to call any more defenses because nothing worked against him."
Pat Summerall was the kicker for the Giants when they lost to Unitas' Colt team in the 1958 and '59 NFL championship games."He didn't look like a quarterback in those high-top shoes, but he had a great arm, a great sense of timing, he was a gambler and he had an unconventional way of calling plays," Summerall said. "Tom Landry, who was our defensive coordinator, could never figure out his play-calling. In those days, the quarterbacks called the plays."
Although lots of people, Summerall among them, considered Unitas a "gambler," he didn't agree with that description.
"I told him one time: 'I thought you were the first guy to be a gambling quarterback,' " said Ted Marchibroda, a former NFL quarterback who coached Unitas late in his Colt career. "He said, 'I was prepared. When I did something, I had a reason for doing it.' "
Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry played with Unitas on the Colts through 1967. He remembered Unitas' first NFL appearance in 1956 against the Chicago Bears after starter George Shaw was hurt. On his first pass, Unitas threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
But it was a different Unitas, Berry said, when the Colts got the ball back.
"It hadn't shaken him up a bit," Berry said. "It was the first time I saw the real John Unitas."
The Colts won, 28-21.
Unitas finished his career with the San Diego Chargers, after being sold by the Colts in January 1973 for $150,000. The Chargers paid him $250,000, double his salary with the Colts, but he played only five games and was 1-3 as a starter, throwing for three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
In San Diego, he became the first quarterback to surpass the 40,000-yard mark. The landmark completion went to former USC star Mike Garrett, now the school's athletic director.
"I remember them stopping the game, and I felt like I had been given a gift," said Garrett, who compared Unitas' impact on football to the one Ted Williams made on baseball. "I was such a minuscule part of his career, but I could actually say I was a part. It was a thrill."
Unitas quit in 1974 with one year remaining on his two-year, $500,000 contract with the Chargers. He was signed as a football commentator by CBS for about $90,000 a year. He didn't need the money, but thought the TV work would be enjoyable. As it happened, he was wrong.
In a 1982 interview with The Times, he said: "I went in totally unprepared. No training, no coaching, nothing. My first game was a disaster. I finally had something to say and I'm rolling along when suddenly the director is talking into my ear, saying, 'Commercial coming up in 10, 9, 8...' I just stopped talking, right in the middle of a thought."
At the end of his third year on the air, CBS told Unitas he would have to improve his command of the language and said he would have to go back to school and take some classes. For nine consecutive weekends, Unitas drove from Baltimore to Philadelphia to work with a specialist.
Apparently, it wasn't enough; the network fired Unitas two years later.
"I was expected to be glib, funny, insightful and speak perfectly," he said. "But I wasn't prepared."
After his TV career, Unitas pursued several interests in Baltimore, where he and his wife, Sandra, raised their three children, Joey, Chad and Paige. He did a national radio show for several years from his restaurant, the Golden Arm, and often made public appearances and speeches.
Times staff writer Larry Stewart contributed to this report.
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By the Numbers
47 - Consecutive games in which Unitas passed for a touchdown, a record.
3 - NFL titles won in career
2 - Times named NFL most valuable player
22 - NFL records held by Unitas when he retired in 1973
290 - Career touchdown passes, fifth in NFL history
4 - Number of seasons leading the league in touchdown passes, tied with two others (Len Dawson, Steve Young) for NFL record.
40,239 - Career passing yards, one of only seven quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for more than 40,000 yards.
Cradle of Quarterbacks
Six prominent NFL quarterbacks from western Pennsylvania:
George Blanda: Native of Youngwood was pro football's ageless wonder. Blanda played 26 seasons as quarterback/kicker for four AFL and NFL teams--Chicago Bears (1949-58), Baltimore Colts (1959), Houston Oilers (1966-66) and Oakland Raiders (1967-75).
Jim Kelly: Native of Pittsburgh possessed "linebacker mentality" and mastered the "no-huddle" offense that became a Buffalo Bill trademark. Kelly led the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances and was the fourth-fastest in NFL history to reach 30,000 yards passing.
Dan Marino: Native of Pittsburgh is the NFL's all-time leader in yards passing (61,361) and touchdown passes (420). Marino also has season records for yards passing (5,084) and touchdown passes (48).
Joe Montana: Native of Monongahela was a two-time NFL most valuable player and led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. Earned a reputation for being impervious to pressure, leading 31 fourth-quarter comebacks.
Joe Namath: A Beaver Falls native, "Broadway Joe" guaranteed the New York Jets of the American Football League would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts of the NFL in Super Bowl III in 1969. The Jets' 16-7 victory gave the upstart AFL credibility.
Johnny Unitas: Native of Pittsburgh led the Baltimore Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959. "Johnny U" was a two-time NFL MVP.
*--* Pass Masters Career leaders, passing yards Dan Marino 61,361 John Elway 51,475 Warren Moon 49,325 Fran Tarkenton 47,003 Dan Fouts 43,040 Joe Montana 40,551 Johnny Unitas 40,239 Vinny Testaverde 39,269 Brett Favre 38,911 Dave Krieg 38,147
Career leaders, touchdown passes Dan Marino 420 Fran Tarkenton 342 John Elway 300 Warren Moon 291 Johnny Unitas 290 Brett Favre 289 Joe Montana 273 Dave Krieg 261 Sonny Jurgensen 255 Dan Fouts 254
The Unitas File
Born: May 7, 1933, Pittsburgh.
Died: Sept. 11, 2002, Baltimore.
Height: 6-1. Weight: 195 pounds.
Education: St. Justin's High (Pittsburgh); graduated University of Louisville, 1955.
Drafted: Ninth round (102nd overall) by Pittsburgh Steelers (1955). Cut before start of 1955 and signed as free agent with Baltimore Colts in 1956.
Uniform number: 19 (retired by Colts).
* Completed 2,830 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdown passes during his career.
* Threw touchdown passes in record 47 consecutive games.
* Had three seasons of 3,000 yards or more.
* Led Colts to 1958, '59 NFL titles and played in Super Bowl V victory over Dallas Cowboys.
* Two-time NFL MVP.
* "Player of the decade" for the 1960s.
* Ten Pro Bowl selections.
* Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
* Named "Greatest Player in the First 50 Years of Pro Football."
* Named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.
* Unitas retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them marks for most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing, most TD passes and most seasons leading the league in TD passes.
*--* Unitas' Career Statistics Year T G Cmp Att Pct Yds YPA TD Int e a m 1956 C 12 110 198 55.6 1,498 7.6 9 10 o l t s 1957 C 12 172 301 57.1 2,550 8.5 24 17 o l t s 1958 C 10 136 263 51.7 2,007 7.6 19 7 o l t s 1959 C 12 193 367 52.6 2,899 7.9 32 14 o l t s 1960 C 12 190 378 50.3 3,099 8.2 25 24 o l t s 1961 C 14 229 420 54.5 2,990 7.1 16 24 o l t s 1962 C 14 222 389 57.1 2,967 7.6 23 23 o l t s 1963 C 14 237 410 57.8 3,481 8.5 20 12 o l t s 1964 C 14 158 305 51.8 2,824 9.3 19 6 o l t s 1965 C 11 164 282 58.2 2,530 9.0 23 12 o l t s 1966 C 14 195 348 56.0 2,748 7.9 22 24 o l t s 1967 C 14 255 436 58.5 3,428 7.9 20 16 o l t s 1968 C 5 11 32 34.4 139 4.3 2 4 o l t s 1969 C 13 178 327 54.4 2,342 7.2 12 20 o l t s 1970 C 14 166 321 51.7 2,213 6.9 14 18 o l t s 1971 C 13 92 176 52.3 942 5.4 3 9 o l t s 1972 C 8 88 157 56.1 1,111 7.1 4 6 o l t s 1973 C 5 34 76 44.7 471 6.2 3 7 h a r g e r s Totals 211 2,830 5,186 54.6 40,239 7.8 290 253